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WILLIAMS v. PHILADELPHIA HOUS. AUTH.

September 17, 1993

RONALD K.M. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
PHILADELPHIA HOUSING AUTHORITY, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: BY THE COURT; J. CURTIS JOYNER

 JOYNER, J.

 September 17, 1993

 I. Introduction

 On August 30, 1992, Defendant Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) discharged Plaintiff Ronald K.M. Williams, Esquire (Williams) citing the misfeasance and nonfeasance of duties as Assistant Counsel to PHA. Williams brought this suit against PHA alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Pennsylvania state law.

 Williams alleged in counts I and II of his complaint that PHA terminated his employment without a proper hearing thus depriving him of both property and liberty interests protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Count III included an additional state claim for breach of contract. *fn1"

 We now face cross-motions for summary judgment. PHA moved for summary judgment asserting that 1) as an at-will employee, Williams had no expectation of continued employment with PHA and, therefore, no property interest; 2) PHA offered Williams the opportunity to challenge his discharge and was not, therefore, deprived of due process in connection with a liberty interest; and 3) as an at-will employee, Williams had no contract.

 Williams incorporated his response to PHA's motion with his own cross-motion for partial summary judgment. First, he argued that he detrimentally relied upon a written agreement with PHA which allegedly guaranteed continued employment upon his return from medical leave and that such reliance is sufficient to create a property interest under the equitable estoppel doctrine. Second, he asserted that PHA violated his liberty interests because stigmatizing information concerning his employment with PHA was published without the opportunity for a formal hearing. Lastly, although he incorporated the same equitable estoppel argument to support his state breach of contract claim in response to PHA's motion, he did not include this claim in his cross-motion for summary judgment.

 II. Facts

 PHA hired Williams on May 10, 1991, as an at-will employee to serve as an Assistant Counsel. At the time, he was a four-year member of the bar of Pennsylvania and of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Defendant Roxanne Galeota was his immediate supervisor and General Counsel, defendant Elton Jolly was the Executive Director, and defendant Anthony Hughes was the Director of Human Resources.

 On May 12, 1992, without having given notice to Ms. Galeota or the court of his planned absence, Williams failed to appear for a scheduled settlement conference before the Honorable William H. Yohn Jr. of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. PHA subsequently suspended Williams from his duties without pay. Also in May, Williams received a separate suspension for other repeated and unauthorized absences. Finally on July 9, 1992, following a failure to attend a scheduled arbitration meeting, Ms. Galeota placed Williams on 90 day probation.

 Despite the probation, William's misconduct continued. On July 16, Williams submitted a memorandum stating that he would be absent the next day. However, he neglected to coordinate the appropriate measures necessary to cover a scheduled court appearance before the Honorable Robert F. Kelly of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The next day, Judge Kelly notified PHA of Williams' failure to show in court forcing Ms. Galeota to represent PHA via telephone in Williams' stead.

 As a result of this series of misconduct, Ms. Galeota notified Williams that she planned to recommend his termination and offered him an opportunity to resign. Williams, however, declined to resign and, Ms. Galeota terminated his employment effective July 30.

 Williams subsequently requested and obtained a personal interview with Mr. Jolly, PHA's Special Master who has the final authority over all dismissals. Williams explained that his poor performance came as a result of the stress that he suffered arising from personal domestic disputes and related litigation. He argued that if not for the domestic problems, his performance would be satisfactory.

 With Mr. Jolly's approval, Williams received a 30 day medical leave of absence. A letter from Ms. Galeota, conditioned the approval of the leave on several stipulations. First, Williams was to submit a medical certificate supporting his medical leave. Second, he was to use the leave to resolve all personal difficulties preventing him from satisfactory performance. Third, PHA was obligated only to return Williams to a job at the same grade and pay level as he previously held. Lastly, in the event of further ...


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